Michael Carrick and Yaya Toure do battle in Manchester United vs. Manchester City from last season.
Author: Herzog’s Child
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Writing in the late 60s in his introduction to “The Football Man,” the late Arthur Hopcraft rightly asserted that, in terms of what it does to people, football has no equal in sport. Attempting to define its magnetism and enduring allure, he also noted that something so deeply woven into the fabric of society could not ever be regarded as merely a “game.” With a focus on the most common sentiment uttered by those who have no passion for it, Hopcraft went on to say that “no player, manager, or fan who understands football, either through his intellect or his nerve-ends, ever repeats that piece of nonsense trotted out by the fearful every now and again which pleads ‘After all, it’s only a game.’” Like any devotee, he recognised that football – with its dramatics, celebrations and crises, tribalism and triumphs – was something more that what it appears to be on the surface. It is something altogether deeper. Any supporter who has experienced the deflation of defeat or the euphoria of victory will testify that football is an assault on the nervous system. Any observer who has bore witness to the winger in flight, the toe-controlled 50-yard pass, or the simplicity of a killer through-ball will declare it is also a form of art. The reason why so many are compelled by it is because a combination of both creates a ceaseless obsession, a snare no one can wrangle free from. Next Monday night will once more serve as a reminder of how this is undoubtedly true.
While a victory against neighbours Manchester City will all but secure an unprecedented 20th league title for Manchester United next Monday night, for many the encounter offers more than just the opportunity to edge closer to silverware. In the aftermath of last season’s final day catastrophe, many of those left unhinged by the cruelty of football attempted to pinpoint precisely where it all went wrong. Fingers were directed towards the capitulation at home to Everton, the dreary loss to Wigan away, and the goal-heavy collapse to City at home. Many even now lament United’s insufficient goal difference which saw City ultimately pip them, ignoring the even more sobering reality that United consistently underperformed throughout last season. The struggle and damaging stumbles that paved the way for City to pounce came as little surprise to those who witnessed with well-placed worry a United side that was faltering at the most crucial of periods. Yet it was against City away in late April, with just three games remaining, which cost United the most. In control of their destiny, despite their recent form, United took the short journey across town knowing that victory would all but herald a title victory. The opportunity of beating your rivals to the title on their pitch created a ferocious appeal. Then the team was announced and the tactics became evident: United had set up to avoid defeat and in doing so invited City to attack them. By full time United had barely mustered a shot in anger, City had won and reality got uglier.
Abandoning the classic United philosophy of going for the opposition’s throat, against City they tried to rely on keeping shape in an attempt to prevent defeat. There is, however, a paradox in trying to nullify your opponent’s strengths – you nullify your own, too. Pragmatists may attempt to suggest that any advantage should be protected as much as possible, and that United were well within their rights to play the patient game to oust City. It misses the point. United, as anyone with even the briefest knowledge of their history will know, are at their strongest when attack is the only option. Rooted deep in their back-story is an understanding that on the field fluidity takes precedence over function. It has been the hallmark of all their greatest sides: the opposition is not something to inspire fear; they are there to have their blood twisted, their defences dismantled, their boxes bombarded and their hearts broken – preferably late on. Against City, Park started for the first time in three months, taking the place of the then in-form and more threatening Antonio Valencia. Wayne Rooney was given the lonesome role of operating alone up front. United failed to threaten and were unable to even muster a late rally, despite knowing even a draw would have been enough. Justly punished for betraying the philosophy that had secured so much previous success, little complaint could have been issued as more success was stolen away in seconds in May. But the beauty of football is that the opportunity to right recent wrongs will always arrive. United are now presented with the perfect antidote to the pain that has lingered since May. Their best chance of overcoming City is by doing what comes naturally to them: go at them with the pace, ruthlessness and attacking terror that has seen off so many teams before.
As purists will preach, it is more than just a results game. Victory and the successes that follow is something we all yearn for, but it is not the reason why we fell in love with the game in our youth. Heroes in boots were found not because they won trophies or individual accolades – they were adored because they could do something with a ball that seemed ridiculous but also appeared to make sense. We are bound to football’s theatre through the teams we support throughout our lives, but it is a marriage sealed by the seductive skill that renders the game beautiful. Following last Monday’s drab cup exit, Fergie declared that a positive result against City would all but hand his team the title. His best chance of securing a positive result is by playing positively – something he failed to do when a victory last year would similarly have finished City off. If history teaches us well, as it should, United will approach the game with the zeal and deathly attacking play that defines their uniqueness. It is the style initiated and first taught by Matt Busby and prolonged and brought to unearthly new heights by the continuing wonders of Alex Ferguson. It is a style that combines the forces of beauty and terror – a combination that reduces those who face it to trembling wrecks. United’s best chance of striking City with a deathblow on Monday night is by returning to what they know best – The United Way. If they do so, they will not only exorcise last April’s demons – they will also show that doing things the right way is the best way of winning titles.